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How do we sustain improvements in the ease of doing business ranking?

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Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa

MY personal passion is to play a role in Nigeria’s ascendancy from a third world country to a first world nation. This passion has been the driver in most of the things that I do. My active roles in the Nigerian Economic Summit group, NESG, Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, MAN, Nigeria Employers Consultative Association, NECA, Business Leaders’Forum, BLF, etc have been driven by this passion.

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I am tired of seeing Nigeria occupy lowly positions in global rankings- human development index, global competitiveness index, infant and maternal mortality, corruption perception index, quality of tertiary education, infectious and communicable diseases, life expectancy, poverty rate, misery index, etc. That was why I wrote my seminal book in 2010 titled: ‘Nigeria@50: Time for the evolution of a new Nation’, which title has been amended to ‘Nigeria: Need for the evolution of a new nation’. I desire a new nation where things work, where quality of life is high and where we can compete squarely with most of the nations of the world in most aspects of human endeavour.

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I also know that no nation can achieve this feat of transformation or ascendancy from thirrd world to first world without a compelling vision. All countries that have made this transition like Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan have started with developing a vision, led by a visionary leader who effectively sold the mission to his people and mobilized them to pursue the achievement of the vision through dedicated implementation of a cohesive strategy.

That was why we initiated the Vision 2010 project with General Abacha and when that failed, following the death of Abacha and the refusal of President Obasanjo to deal with any document bearing Abacha’s picture, we re-engaged with Yar’Adua/Jonathan to devise the vision 2020. Though the vision was poorly sold to Nigerians and its implementation half hearted, there is no gain saying that the focus to be among the top twenty countries with the highest gross domestic product,GDP, by the year 2020, helped Nigeria make significant advances in GDP growth during Jonathan years. By 2015, we were advancing quite steadily and there was a projection we could achieve the vision before 2020, until the 2016-2017 recession halted and reversed our journey.

Nigeria, currently has a medium-term economic recovery and growth plan, NERGP. This is no national vision as it is neither long term, not comprehensive, nor aspirational. But it is better than nothing. It is like Obasanjos’s NEEDS, National Economic Empowerment and Development Strategy- a set of economic targets and actions to be taken primarily by the public sector to pursue economic growth. Because of its limitations in concept and scope such plans do not mobilize the entire citizenry. Little wonder the NERGP is making slow progress as we struggle to resist falling back into recession. But there is one area, we can see and feel real progress- improvement in the Ease of Doing Business

How did we get here? In 2012 or so when Dr. Olusegun Aganga was minister of trade and investment, was complaining about Nigeria’s global rankings especially in the areas of ease of doing business and competitiveness, that the more we tried, the worse our rankings became; I advised him to identify and benchmark those criteria that were used for the global assessment. Thereafter, we needed to set up mechanisms to take each criterion one by one and identified actions we needed to take to improve our ratings on each of the scores. He accepted this advice, which I gave at a breakfast meeting of the Nigerian-American Chamber of Commerce, NACC.

Dr. Aganga ran with this leading to the inauguration of the Nigerian Competitiveness Council. Things then began to improve for Nigeria. Similar strategy has been been adopted by this government with a determined focus on improving Nigeria’s ease of doing business. Specifically the government set up a Presidential Enabling Business Environment Council, PEBEC, under the direct supervision of the Vice President. Specific areas of reform were identified and the government mandated changes in those areas. This involved the signing of some executive orders, marshaling of actions to be taken by the MDAs, involvement of the States and some effort at monitoring the agreed changes.

This dedicated focus resulted in Nigeria moving up 24 places in the 2018 World Bank’s Ease of doing Business report- moving from 169 place in 2017 to 145 place in 2018. What is more, Nigeria was judged as one of the ten most improved economies in the World. This is a no-mean achievement which deserves applause. Nigeria showed improvements in seven key activity areas- Paying Taxes (182-171), Registering Property (182-179), Getting Electricity (180-172), Getting construction permit (174-147), Access to Credit (32-6), Enforcing contracts (139-96), and starting a business (138-130). As can be seen the most significant improvements were recorded in access to credit, enforcing contracts, construction permits and paying taxes. Anybody who has watched will have noted that these improvements were result of visible focus and actions taken in these areas.

Though the recently released World Economic Forum, WEF, 2018 global competitiveness index rating showed that Nigeria went back from overal 112 ranking in 2017 to 115 ranking in 2018, there is clear evidence that the free fall has been arrested and if we continue to mandate reforms and enforce and monitor the reforms, positive changes will occur. My main point is that changing our economic, political and social conditions are possible if we inculcate the habit of breaking down the issues into identifiable manageable bits, designing the changes we want, working with stakeholders to take action to effect the changes, monitoring, rewarding compliance and punishing non- compliance.

Yes some may argue that the changes have not yet made the expected impact on a wide scale across the economy, for example, the access to credit where Nigeria jumped 26 positions from 32 to 6. Many may still argue that the access is not yet universal and that the scores may just be the assessment or perception of the privileged who actually participated in the surveys. Yes, that may be right, but we must bear in mind that it is the same”privileged class” whose assessment put us in the 32nd position in 2017 that have revised their assessment making us jump to the sixth position in 2018.

That shows that things have changed in these areas and if we continue to push those changes to endure, then the impact will percolate down. But that really is the challenge. Are these changes now permanent? Are they now engrained in our bureaucratic culture or shall we return to our old ways when the focus is relaxed or when new bureaucrats come on stage as happened with the war against indiscipline. Sustainability is a major challenge for desirable change in our economy. And we must find ways to assure this.

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